Daydreaming—my brain didn’t get that module

Until I read an article in Scientific Mind this month about daydreaming (“Living in a Dream World” by Josie Glausiusz; not available for free as far as I can find), I wasn’t aware that I lack this mental activity. Definitions vary; one used in the article is that daydreams are “an inner world where we can rehearse the future and imagine new adventures without risk“. Another is “imagining situations in the future that are largely positive in tone”. I would add something to differentiate daydreaming from planning—perhaps that daydreaming includes emotional reactions.

It’s not clear in the article whether research results apply only to positive fictional imaginings or to routine planning and review, as well. The latter is much more common. Also the author conflates daydreaming and the mind’s use of off-task time to solve problems non-consciously.

People can daydream in extravagant adventures à la Walter Mitty, or more mundane imaginings of how good that hot bath will feel after work, or how happy one’s child will be when she receives her Christmas present. Most people, the author says, “spend about 30 percent of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, lost in thought, woolgathering, in a brown study, or building castles in the air.” And it’s important to our sense of self, our creativity, “and how we integrate the outside world into our inner lives”.

I remember, as a solitary child, pretending to be Superman or Tarzan, but not often; I read, instead. After the age of 10 or 12, I don’t think I had imaginary adventures at all. Not surprisingly, I’m also unable to visualize scenes: “Imagine yourself on a tropical beach” is impossible for me to do. I can think, okay, I’m on a tropical breach, it is warm and sunny, and so on, but there’s no sensory aspect to it, just words. Similarly, my memories of the past (mostly gone now due to fibromyalgia cognitive damage) are all just words, as if someone had described a scene to me rather than my having experienced it. There’s no “mind’s eye” in my mind. In novels I usually tune out while reading the descriptions of landscapes and people; no corresponding mental pictures rise in my mind.

Daydreaming can be escapism but it can also be a way of trying out different futures, and experiencing the associated emotions. I think this could also help motivate a person toward a chosen or hoped-for future, by allowing advance tastes of its rewards or of the misery of its alternative. I make decisions about future choices and I make plans but I don’t try them out mentally in advance, and I also (in jobs, for example) tend to stay where I am rather than striving for something different. I’ve thought of myself as lacking in ambition, but maybe it’s more that I don’t have a way of modelling the future choices with emotional content. Mostly I’ve stayed in jobs until they became intolerable, then moved on, sometimes with no replacement in mind. I can’t even really visualize ideas for a vacation or a trip, especially to someplace I’ve never been.

So, what do I do with that 30% of my waking hours that other people use for daydreaming? Not enough. Sometimes, for a couple of minutes, it seems nothing is going on in my mind, or merely observation, without commentary, of what’s happening around me; I have no idea how typical that is. But mostly the engine’s running, chewing over what’s in front of it. Why are things this way, how could this activity be done better, how does this work, that sort of thing. I used to do a lot of sequential thinking, as if working through thoughts with pen and paper, exploring ideas and putting things together, taking them apart, finding correlations and causes. I could continue working on different mental projects during intervals across days and days, and sometimes wrote that way—at the end of the mental work I’d have an outline and some exact wording to put down on paper. Then I’d revise and expand, but I could work out a lot of it mentally and recall it. No more, since fibromyalgia. Thinking is often slow and I can’t remember from one day to the next what I came up with. Sometimes thoughts flit through and are gone before I can even try to remember them. This is one of FM’s major losses, for me, both a loss of pleasure and a loss of what I can accomplish.

Maybe reading fills the role of daydreaming for me. I read a lot, about equal amounts fiction and non-, and if circumstances prevent me from reading for a couple of days I feel the deprivation. The article mentions non-daydreamers only in passing: “Cognitive psychologists are now also examining how brain disease may impair our ability to meander mentally”. If my impairment is due to a brain disease, it’s one I’ve had since early on.

Others, it turns out, suffer from the opposite disorder, daydreaming that is a compulsion or simply so enjoyable that real life takes a back seat. Some have a second life in an alternate world where continuing characters age just like people in the world the rest of us live in. They may fit this narrative into available mental down-time in their lives, or spend up to 90% of their time “away”.

I find it strange that it took me so long to discover that other people spend a third of their waking hours on a mental activity which I lack entirely. It goes to show how little exchange there is among us humans regarding how we think, how our individual minds work. Humans yo-yo between xenophobia—members of other groups are different, dangerous— and “we’re all really just alike”, but a study of psychological research found “significant psychological and behavioral differences between what the researchers call Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies and their non-WEIRD counterparts across a spectrum of key areas, including visual perception, fairness, spatial and moral reasoning, memory and conformity.“ Maybe in daydreaming as well. But nearly all psychological research is done on WEIRD subjects, for both practical and ethnocentric reasons, so who knows? Same for neuroscience; who’s going to airlift fMRI equipment to the lands of the Yanomamo and then persuade them to lie down with their heads inside?


Still, the article raised in my mind some questions we could look at right here in the post-industrial West. If people were prevented from daydreaming, by some technological device probably not yet invented, how would they feel? (Recalling the familiar ‘fact’ about deprivation of night-time dreaming making people hallucinate, I looked to see if it was true, and apparently not.) What proportion of people don’t have imaginative daydreams, and is this always a sign of brain disease or dysfunction or just a normal mental variation? We characterize one sort of excessive negative daydreaming as “catastrophizing”; what about individuals making deliberate use of negative or positive futures, to influence their behavior? And how can “daydreaming” be more precisely separated out from other mental processes such as planning, brooding, brainstorming, and worrying?

Muse on it all, and see what your daydreaming mind comes up with.

King vulture

King vulture photo by Tambako the Jaguar, flickr.

Not exactly a New Year’s resolution, but…

This is about the time when people start to revel or reveal, with regard to how they’re doing with their New Year’s resolutions. I haven’t made any for years but I did take on something for 2011 that is turning out to be rather similar.

Back in November I came across the concept of “365” groups, on flickr. Members commit to taking photos every single day, and posting one of them to the group, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. At the end of the year one has 365 photos, each taken on a different day of the year—it’s not permitted to take and post 2 pictures today to make up for none yesterday. On impulse I signed up for one of the groups; when late December rolled around I questioned, did I really need one more thing to do, but decided to stick with it and see what happened. I was pleased to see that my group, 365: the 2011 edition, had only 805 members, as compared to one 365 group with over 20,000. It’s conceivable I’ll get a look at some of the photos of each member in my group before we reach Day 365.

My impulsive choice has had significant results. I always carried my camera, a Canon PowerShot, with me in my bag or coat pocket wherever I went but most of the time it just went along for the ride. In case of something dramatic I was ready, but nearly all of my subjects were predictable: our dogs, forest, flowers, sky. Now the camera is increasingly in my hand either because I’m on the lookout for a good subject or because I’m using it. I’m more observant, looking up and around, and looking at things with conscious attention to light, composition, color, pattern.

Looking upward in a country store that sells everything, which I’ve gone into regularly for 15 years, I saw a high-up display of taxidermy specimens I had never noticed before. Never noticed before?

BlackBird taxidermy display 1.jpg

How could I have missed it? There’s a black bear behind the leaping bobcat, and on the other side of the display a dozen trophy heads including a moose. Actually I had noticed the moose head, behind a daunting display of rifles, but that’s all I’d been aware of until now. Obviously, I have been in the thrall of fixation on my immediate purpose and suffering tunnel vision as a result.

BlackBird taxidermy display, bobcat leaps for grouse.jpg

I think the bird is a Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar, an Asian species introduced in Oregon). Bobcat and lynx are pretty similar, but the cat making this one-footed leap for its dinner lacks the lynx’s black ear-tufts and furry snowshoe feet so I’ll go for the smaller and more common bobcat, Lynx rufus or Felis rufus.

My strengths as a photographer are patience and an attunement to pattern and composition. The latter is getting good exercise as I apply it more widely, beyond rocks and bark and such.

bottles at liquor store.jpg

plastic glasses.jpg

Taking photos of new subjects, and doing it every day, means lots more for me to look over and critique. What was I trying to do, how did it work, how could it work better, should my purpose have been different for this subject—these are some questions I’m asking every day now as I look at my day’s work. And then I look through other peoples’ photos with enjoyment and an eye to learning from them. I bookmark some individuals’ photostreams because of their skills, or because I find their places and subjects interesting.

Perhaps I can use the 365 project to help me conquer my shyness about asking people if I may include them in my photos. That would certainly open up a new world photographically, but it will not be easy. I noticed a post on the 365 forum by someone who has had a special business-type card made up for this purpose: it bears his name, email address, and flickr link, and he gives it to people as part of asking permission to photograph them. His 365 photos are all portraits—he’s working on lighting and composition as well as becoming more extroverted. Maybe I should try the card idea myself; props can be good, and this one is considerate and makes sense.

What I’ve learned about building a new skill or habit (of which New Year’s resolutions are a particular case) would not surprise any behaviorist:

Commit to a specific action, every day

Choose an action that’s not too difficult

Keep a record and/or tell others about your commitment

Whether it’s putting stars on a calendar for an exercise program, or posting a photo for each day, there’s a lot of power in getting the new habit out of the realm of intellect and intention and into a visible form. I had only about a dozen photos on flickr, and now I’ve added a 365 set that has all my “photos of the day” in it. It’s satisfying to see the set grow, and to notice how my repertoire is expanding. The group’s explicit purpose is improvement of one’s skills rather than posting masterpieces. Inclusive rather than exclusive.

I’m learning to pay more attention—and a different kind of attention—to what’s around me, and try new things with the camera and my eye; I’m into a daily discipline; and maybe I’ll even use the photo project as a means of building confidence about talking to others. Not bad for what I thought was an impulsive commitment!

Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

Hogarth engraving of street life among the poor.jpg

William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.

Christine O’Donnell, religion, and the human brain

Poor would-be senator Christine O’Donnell has been ridiculed for her comment about mice with human brains:

O’DONNELL: … these groups admitted that the report that said, “Hey, yay, we cloned a monkey. Now we’re using this to start cloning humans.” We have to keep…

O’REILLY: Let them admit anything they want. But they won’t do that here in the United States unless all craziness is going on.

O’DONNELL: They are — they are doing that here in the United States. American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they’re already into this experiment.

From transcript of O’Reilly show, Friday, November 16, 2007.

Why would Ms. O’Donnell (or someone who informed her) believe this?

Reports of mouse-brain research have been greatly exaggerated

It doesn’t take much to find some of the “evidence” that may have convinced her or her informant. As others have noted, there have been experiments in which human cells were injected into embryo mice, and became part of their brains. A bit different than “cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains”, but all rumors have to start somewhere.

Bad reporting may be to blame: here’s the headline and first line of the 2005 article on the National Geographic site:

NatGeo article on mice.jpg


In case that last line is too small to read, it says “Researchers in California have created living mice with functioning human stem cells in their brains.”

Earlier that same year (2005) another article on the NatGeo site briefly referred to the same research (before it had occurred) this way “And at Stanford University in California an experiment might be done later this year to create mice with human brains.” The title of this misleading article was Animal-Human Hybrids Spark Controversy. Yes, plenty of controversy, but in the article no hybridization is being talked about, only the use of stem cells to demonstrate their potential to be re-purposed. In biology, a hybrid is the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, such as a mule (a hybrid of a donkey and a horse), and that is the popular understanding as well. Few would consider a mouse with a few cells of human origin, all functioning as mouse cells, to be a hybrid.

mouse with human headSM.jpg

Christine, you need a smart friend; meet Clyven the mouse

But wait, it’s not all down to irresponsible journalism; perhaps Ms. O’Donnell got her information from this page, on the site of the prestigious RYT Hospital, about “Clyven: The World’s First Transgenic Mouse with Human Intelligence” :


Here’s the explanatory text from that page.

Margaret A. Keyes, M.D., Ph.D., is a researcher in genetic medicine and Professor of Cell Biology and Genetics at RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center. She is exploring the use of embryonic stem cells as a means to cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

By implanting human brain cells (grown from a human embryo’s stem cells) into a mouse engineered to have Alzheimer’s, Dr. Keyes inadvertently made a remarkable and startling discovery: she not only cured the mouse’s Alzheimer’s Disease, but the animal soon developed the relative intelligence of a human being.

After extensive consideration by RYT Hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), it was decided that this mouse would be placed under a new study led by Dr. Keyes’ lab.

As part of this new facility (pictured to the right), Clyven is placed inside a light-sensitive box with electrodes attached to him. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. He is able to communicate and interact with people via this neuro interface. [sic] To hear a live audio feed of Clyven inside his box, please click here.

© RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center

Evidently RYT Hospital has a very understanding Ethics Committee; they approve of confining an animal with a human brain in a little box and punching his head full of electrodes. But Clyven is not bored—in fact, you are invited to chat with him or play a game against him.

Chat with Clyven.jpg

Unfortunately, Clyven’s conversation is limited and repetitious—maybe he himself wrote that quoted passage above, that has the repeated sentence. My best conversation with him was this one,

ME: Hi Clyven.
ME: Do you know that a tea party candidate is talking about you?
MOUSE: That’s pretty silly.
ME: Yes.
MOUSE: Tell me more.
ME: I don’t want you to know how dumb people can get.
MOUSE: I’m sorry. I hope to get smarter as time goes on. Please be patient with me. I will be receiving additional neurological treatments next week.

On the other hand, don’t let him persuade you to bet money on that CheezeMaze contest, he’ll beat you paws down.

It’s surprising we haven’t heard more about this RYT Hospital, with the amazingly advanced and useful research that is being done there. Elsewhere on the site, you can read about a new drug, Revitalex


about successful gene therapy for back pain, and about “NanoDocs”, nanobots that circulate throughout the body repairing tissues.

medical nanites.jpg

Okay, so it’s not a real site but the project of an artist named Virgil Wong. He’s a painter, film-maker, and head of web design for two real hospitals.

Still, can’t you see how anybody might be taken in by the slick style, and accept that there really is a mouse with human intelligence, and nanobots that can tidy up your blood vessels?

No? You say anyone beyond the stage of believing in the Tooth Fairy should have seen through this? and through the distorted reports of growing human brains in mice?

I think so too.

Wherever Christine O’Donnell may have gotten her “information” about mice with human brains, the real problem is minds like hers that are unprepared to question things that most of us would find outlandish. They also believe that Obama is Hitler, Stalin, and a Kenyan anti-colonialist, all at the same time! which would explain why, as I have heard on good authority, Obama has three heads, a fact cleverly concealed by camera angles and good tailoring.

Newt, Eastern.jpg

Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), Red Eft Stage. Etymological note: Notophthalamus from the Greek noto (a mark) and ophthalmus (eye), presumably in reference to the eye spots on the sides and back; viridescens from the Latin, (slightly green) referring to the greenish color of the adults. Source.

One born every minute? or are they made?

Where do these credulous people come from? I don’t mean people like Newt Gingrich, who will repeat anything—no matter how preposterous—if it seems advantageous. No, demagogues use untruths consciously, with calculated intent. The power of the demagogue depends upon there being enough people who cannot distinguish between the likely, the possible, and the absurd, and therefore won’t laugh him off his soapbox. And where do they come from?

The beginning preparation for most credulous people of otherwise normal intelligence is, I think, being raised with a huge area of life and thought which is categorically excluded from rational examination. Now, every culture and sub-culture has some areas like that, because they are essential as part of the group’s self-definition. In this Land of the Unquestioned reside things like appropriate behavior (manners), kinship rules, dress codes, what we eat and how we cook it, all that sort of thing. That’s why our way of life seems so logical and natural, and other groups’ ways seem bizarre and senseless.

No problem when it’s a question of the relative merits of haggis or corn on the cob, but in the area of exclusion there are more significant topics also, such as attitudes to the “Other” (women, outsiders, those in your own group who don’t conform), and toward violence. That’s the cultural “Don’t think about these things” list. Then there’s religion and its list.

Religion is the really big no-fly zone for human reason. It covers a much wider area of life than ordinary cultural indoctrination, often upon a foundation of dogmatic zeal which asserts sole possession of truth, and enforces details of the dogma with extreme fervor.

Totalitarianism and extremist religions share two fundamental principles: there is only one true way, and everyone must be forced to acknowledge it. It is not enough for the non-believer to refrain from critical expression and deviant action: he or she must be made to believe. Hence the show trials held by the Soviets, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Inquisition, in which tortured inmates confess their nonexistent sins; hence the death penalty for apostasy in Islam, and the roasting alive of unrepentant Christians by the Romans and doggedly heathen Native Americans by the Christians. The Other must be brought within the fold or die, and it should be done in a public and painful way to present a compelling example to everyone else.

Children are born enquirers (non-believers), and about the age of three they start to ask “Why?” about everything, with irritating persistence. Give an answer and they ask for more details or ask “Why?” again. (Offer a non-answer like “I don’t know” or “Be quiet” and they repeat the original question or say nothing; curiosity discouraged begins to shut down.) Their brains are making and pruning connexions, they’re constructing an internal model of the world, and they want and need to know more and to discuss their own thoughts. They are also learning how to learn, how to figure things out.

A child who gets yelled at for asking about talking snakes, or smacked for asking why the God of Love is such a bloody-handed war-approving tyrant in the Old Testament (see note 1), will learn to accept what he or she is told and not think about it. The lesson is to avoid questioning—especially the things in life that seem illogical, cruel, unfair, out of sync with reality. And that “respect for authority” (actually, it is only respect for power and avoidance of punishment) carries over into other parts of life. The more intensely the “No Questions Zone” is defended, the more timid the young mind’s reason becomes.

Curiosity is inborn, but logic is learned. When children are exposed to illogical conclusions, such as “You got a cold right after you ate that ice cream, so no more ice cream” or “I know the Bible is the Word of God because the preacher says so and the Bible says to follow what the preacher says” they won’t learn the basic rules of logic that help humans sort true from false, as well as “probably true” from “probably false”. Ignorance of logic is of course a good thing for those enforcing a monolithic belief system.

Our country’s culture has an equivocal position on learning. Along with its tradition of independence and individualism, the US also has a strong anti-intellectual tradition, because of its religious foundations and the pragmatic demands of survival on successive frontiers from New England to the Pacific coast. When book-larnin’ is seen as irrelevant, perhaps un-masculine, some will make a positive virtue of ignorance. Also, study is hard, ignorance is effortless. Entropy prevails.

Logic and critical thinking are not enough. In order to winnow the wheat from the chaff reliably, it’s necessary to have some actual knowledge. When a statement is made, the hearers check it against their relevant knowledge base. This process is usually instant and automatic. The new information may directly conflict with existing knowledge, or it may just appear quite unlikely based on what is already known. A certain stock of knowledge, reliable because it has been tested or was provided by a trusted authority, is needed to get through life. Yet even some of this knowledge may be false—blondes are dumb, bankers are trustworthy, a barking dog never bites—and individuals must also possess the willingness to re-examine beliefs based on new experience. Except in the No Thinking Zone, where the only safe course is to agree with authority and otherwise keep your mouth shut.

When politics is the subject, then history must have special prominence among relevant areas of knowledge. Just like more workaday fields of endeavor, political systems embody responses to real needs and problems. If I were re-designing the internal combustion engine, I would first need to know why each part had been designed as it was; what earlier mechanisms were tried for mixing the fuel or timing the ignition, and what were their flaws?

It is history which answers these questions in politics, and must be consulted before tinkering or throwing away parts. For example, decades of controversy about the constitutional provision in the First Amendment usually referred to as “separation of church and state” have distorted public understanding of the law’s intent by framing it as a dispute between agnostics or atheists, vs. religious people. In fact it was enacted to defend all religions from government, and from a preference being shown for a single church, as well as to protect government (or non-religious persons) from religion. And the history of state-established religions illustrates the many repressions and disenfranchisements which are imposed upon members of the non-official religions, even including banishment and death. Only modern ignorance permits the discussion of this subject to be framed entirely as a conflict between religion and irreligion. [Christine O’Donnell, in a recent debate, was ignorant of the provision entirely. After the phrase “Government shall make no law respecting establishment of religion” was quoted to her, she asked “That is in the First Amendment?” Yes, it is, though the exact words are “Congress shall make no…”.]

Logic, general knowledge, critical thinking, history: how is the American public doing on these?

37% of Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and 25% believe in astrology, i.e. that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives.

Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity, only about 10% know what radiation is, and 20% think the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science abandoned by the 17th century.

50% of our fellow citizens believe in alien abductions, though happily only 7% say they or someone they know has been abducted.

39% of Americans could not name any of the freedoms in the First Amendment.

14 percent of Americans say President Barack Obama may be the Antichrist (24 percent of Republicans believe this). Almost 20% believe he is a Muslim. Does that add up to 34% or is there some overlap?

Two-thirds of 1,000 American adults polled couldn’t name a single current justice of the Supreme Court. In the same survey, more than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed that either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.

And 21% believe in witchcraft, so O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” ad did have its audience.

When you look through these and other poll results it seems that at least 10% to 25% of Americans believe in just about any unproven concept you can imagine. A larger percentage is very ignorant of history and public affairs.

If you’re reading this, and have been apathetic about getting to the polls, you better think again.

One final poll result: in 2009, 19% percent of Americans agreed that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, and 39% said the press has too much freedom.

mr natural.jpg


NOTE 1: I cite only two examples, both from the same holy book, for the sake of brevity, but every religion seems to have its own set of magical events and unquestioned cruelties which must be accepted in order to belong. Belong, get along, go along.

No glaciers on the news

Last night I wanted to see footage on television of the huge island of ice that has broken off of the Petermann glacier in Greenland. It’s the biggest such event in the Arctic for 50 years, launching a massive iceberg that has four times the area of Manhattan and is 600 feet thick. “The so-called “ice island” covers a hundred square miles (260 square kilometers) and holds enough water to keep U.S. public tap water flowing for 120 days.”

I thought that some enterprising Greenlander, perhaps from the Greenland Ice Patrol which monitors ice movement for shipping safety, would surely have gotten aloft and sent us all some live footage showing the area, but apparently not. Merging two clichés, one about cable tv and the other about big-box stores, I thought: “500 channels, but never what you want”.

Online, of course, there are photos like these from NASA.


Real color photo from NASA. I added the orange line around the breakaway ice island. Source.


False color photo from NASA. Source.

And I did find about two seconds of overhead video on YouTube. It’s about 20 seconds into the video, and most of the rest is talking heads taking sides on whether the event is connected to global warming/climate change. Maybe yes, maybe no, does it really matter if each individual event can be connected? Good for politicians and talk-shows.

In the Antarctic, however, there seems to be quite a clear pattern. Nearly all of the world’s glacier ice, 91%, is located there. An international scientific partnership including the US Geological Survey (and the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt fűr Kartographie und Geodäsie) has found that

every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level. [report dated 2/22/10]

Since 1950, total Antarctic ice loss exceeds 9,652 square miles. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen faster than in any other area in the southern hemisphere – a rise that translates to more than five degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the last century.


This image shows ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. Distance bar may be hard to read: it’s 50 miles in 10 miles increments. USGS scientists are studying coastal and glacier change along the entire Antarctic coastline. The southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula is one area studied as part of this project, and is summarized in the USGS report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947–2009” (map I–2600–C). (Credit: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey). Source.

It is expected that loss of the floating ice shelves will allow the land-based ice to flow faster toward and into the ocean. If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt completely, it is estimated that it would add about 23 feet (7 meters) to current sea level. The West Antarctic Ice sheet is believed to be less stable than that covering East Antarctica, because the ice of East Antarctica lies on rock that is above sea level and is thought unlikely to collapse. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is on rock below sea level:

“Not just a bit below sea level, it’s 2,000 meters below sea level,” said David Vaughan, a principal investigator with the British Antarctic Survey. “If there was no ice sheet there, this would be deep ocean, deep like the middle of the Atlantic.”

Some scientists have theorized that this makes the WAIS inherently unstable. If the ice sheet retreats beyond a certain point, a positive feedback mechanism should, they say, lead to runaway retreat that would not stop until most of the ice sheet disappears. [Source.]

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 13% of all the ice on the Antarctic continent, enough to raise current sea levels around 11 feet (3.3 meters). And when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made its climate change predictions, including the “mid-range projection” (mid-range meaning, not the best-case nor the worst-case scenario) that seas will rise 17 inches (44 centimeters), they did not include what the effects would be, if polar ice sheets began to melt faster than in the decade of 1993-2003. This was done because there wasn’t enough known about ice sheet melting and its change over time. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is 6 miles thick in places, so it’s not easy to know what is going on under it and finding out has only recently seemed important to those who fund such expensive research.

Finally, the aspect that has seemed to many the most frightening about climate change predictions: the unknown potential for interactions between complex systems such as wind currents and ocean currents, which could conceivably multiply foreseen effects. (Or, if we were amazingly lucky, cause them to cancel one another out; but we won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it.) For example, it’s believed that the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is caused by warmer water flowing up underneath the ice. But this water is not from melting ice; rather it comes from deep within the ocean, and climate change may be making it warmer by one of those unforeseen linkages:

Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be. Jenkins’ model showed that these circumpolar currents, sometimes called “Westerlies,” “the Screaming 50s,” or “the Roaring 40s,” actually push surface waters out away from the continent. This results from the Coriolis Force, the byproduct of Earth’s rotation that causes cyclonic systems to turn counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.

If the atmospheric currents speed up, more water is pulled up. Indeed, observations indicate these atmospheric currents have sped up in recent decades in response to global warming. So increased upwelling seems likely.

[Read more in this article which goes into deeper detail than many accounts of climate research for lay persons. It reports on the 2007 the West Antarctic Links to Sea-Level Estimation (WALSE) international workshop.]

It’s this sort of unforeseen multiplier-effect between two systems (each one of which,by itself, strains our capacity to make accurate mental and statistical models), that makes me think efforts to mitigate, and prepare for, climate change should be at the top of every developed nation’s agenda. Of course it’s not at the top of any nation’s agenda, and won’t be, until the effects are severe—not just “extreme weather” like last week’s flooding and unusual heat waves, but unmistakeable (and irreversible) such as significant rise in sea levels. By then secondary results, such as mass migration of tens of millions trying to flee drought and famine, will be well under way and our primate brains will be where they are most comfortable, dealing with what’s right in front of them. Near-term possibilities are construed concretely, long-term ones abstractly, and the consequences of that upon human action are pretty much as you’d expect. Psychologists even have a name for this, “temporal construal”.

We are told that Homo sapiens mostly evolves culturally now, rather than physically. Yet human cultures in industrial nations are mostly under the control of corporate interests which manufacture and sell us “culture” in a form that serves their ends. Government, also, serves them. If corporations were subject to natural selection we wouldn’t have seen no-strings bailouts for banks and financial institutions, instead there would have been widespread failures. If American culture is poorly adapted for survival in coming conditions, and if the few run it for their short-term gain, then chances for “our” success seem slim. Humans are slippery devils, though, enduring and resourceful. And there are still a few groups of hunter-gatherers and nomads left who may well prove far more resilient than any of our proud nations.

Ah, Oregon!

Here in Elk Snout (the fictional small Oregon coastal town featured in the 1987 Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn movie Overboard), things are different, all right.

From an article in the Oregonian about use of fake urine in drug tests, this information from a county Dept. of Community Justice spokesperson:

The tampering includes people who dilute their own urine and tricksters who turn in a range of substitutes. “For example,” she said, “someone tried to pass off a sample of elk urine as their own.”

Elk .jpg

”You want what?” Photo source.

Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

Equisetum 2stages.jpg

Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.


The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

Equisetum StemCLOSE.jpg

and hollow.

Equisetum Hollow.jpg

The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

Equisetum stem cross-section.jpg

This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

Equisetum strobilum forms.jpg

In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.


Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

Prunus virginianus tree.jpg

and laden with tresses of white blooms.

Prunus virginianus .jpg

This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

Achilleia millefolium flowers.jpg

A closer view of the flowers.

Achillea millefolium flower detail.jpg

The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

achillea millefolium leaf .jpg

It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited,, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

AchillesBinding Wound.jpg

Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.

Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

Achilles in battle.jpg

Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

Astyanax, Hector.jpg

“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.

The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

Walls of Troy.jpg

Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.